Free Tuition in New York Adds Powerful Pull at Decision Deadline

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With Excelsior, Jasmine, a violinist and senior at the Bronx High School of Science, could afford to live on Purchase’s campus in Westchester County, where room, board and fees ran just under $15,000 this year. Though she would commute from home to Mannes, Purchase would still be cheaper.

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Jasmine Yanase, with her mother, Yukiko. Jasmine is considering attending Purchase, and the new Excelsior program could be a factor in her choice. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

“I’m definitely in love with this school,” Jasmine said after finishing a tour of Purchase’s campus. “I’m just waiting to see if Mannes is worth the money.”

Parents, too, at Purchase were warming to the idea of free tuition. Harry Martinian of Elmont said he and his wife, Anna, had expected to “shell out a considerable amount of money” for their son Otto’s tuition. An aspiring lighting designer, Otto was also accepted at Adelphi University, a private school where tuition would run about $15,000 a year after financial aid was factored in. Like Jasmine, he could not afford to live on campus at the private college.

Before the Excelsior program, Otto was counting on $3,000 in financial aid from state and federal sources toward tuition at Purchase, currently $6,470. Now, the new program would fill in the remaining gap.

“It’s a relief,” Otto said.

The family had no problem with the requirement that program participants live and work in-state for a number of years equal to how long they received the scholarship money, or have it convert to a loan.

“This is smart government because it keeps the talent where it belongs,” Mr. Martinian said in reference to the residency requirement.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made Excelsior the centerpiece of his middle-class agenda, saying it will “make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students” who might otherwise not be able to afford to attend. The program’s passage was hailed by Hillary Clinton, among others, for opening up college opportunities, but critics have complained that it does little to ease the college burden for the state’s poorest students. (By 2019, the income cap for the scholarship will rise to $125,000.)

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A campus tour at Purchase on April 21. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship could be worth close to $6,500 a year to eligible students at Purchase and other SUNY schools. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Some have argued that the tens of millions of dollars allotted for the program this year should be used instead to help low-income students pay for room and board, which is generally not covered by existing state and federal financial-aid programs. Others faulted the scholarship’s stringent eligibility requirements, including full-time enrollment and the need to stay in the state after graduation. Still others worried that the program would siphon students from New York’s private colleges, putting their financial viability in jeopardy.

At Purchase, college officials estimated that 2,100 of the 4,000 undergraduates, including incoming freshmen and returning students, would qualify for the Excelsior scholarship, which is designed to fill the gaps of tuition costs not covered by financial aid.

Dennis Craig, the college’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, estimated that two-thirds of those 2,100 students also would qualify for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell grants, meaning the Excelsior money would be the “last dollar” and cover whatever the other programs did not. The remaining students would not have received any aid in previous years because their family’s earnings would have left them ineligible for tuition assistance or Pell grants. Now the state will pay their tuition.

“They would be taking out loans ordinarily,” Mr. Craig said. “They are people pretty close to the top of the income bracket.”

The program, which was announced after students had been accepted, added an unexpected variable into carefully worked out equations colleges use to estimate how many students will accept offers of admission. Too few students and a college comes up short on revenue. Too many and three students are suddenly squeezing into dorm rooms meant for two.

“As an enrollment manager, I worry about everything,” Mr. Craig said. “We put our best foot forward and select a class that we think is good fit for the college and the student. Then there is a piece of this that is a little bit a roll of the dice.”

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Purchase staff explaining the Excelsior program. Excelsior applications should be ready by the end of May. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Stephanie McCaine, the college’s director of admissions, anticipated that the program would have a more decisive effect next year, since news of the program broke well after application season. The college is hoping for a final head count of about 760 freshmen this fall.

“There’s only so much we can do to control human behavior, and there are many other factors that go into a decision,” she said. “I don’t think it will overwhelm us.”

Dozens of students called the college to find out about the program in the days after it was enacted, and on accepted-students day a good chunk of a panel on financial aid was devoted to explaining how it would work. The state’s Higher Education Services Corporation is preparing an Excelsior application that should be ready by the end of May, and students will be notified after that.

Jacob Ebel of Hudson, who plans to study guitar and psychology, admitted that the prospect of a tuition-free college experience was seductive. He would qualify for the Excelsior scholarship, but if he became a professional musician after graduating, he might not want to be tied to New York.

“That sort of freaks me out,” he said, adding that the cost of college was nonetheless a “big factor in my decision.”

Jacob was deciding among several SUNY schools and Ithaca College, a private school where financial aid would cut the cost of tuition, room and board in half, to about $30,000 a year. For his parents, Bill and Janet Ebel, who have put two older children through college, the cost difference is significant.

Mr. Ebel, a building contractor and teacher who attended Princeton University, said the new state tuition program was “very attractive.”

“It’s huge,” said Mrs. Ebel, a mortgage broker. “We’re in that sweet spot where we don’t make $250,000 a year and we don’t qualify for free giveaways, either. We are the epitome of New York’s middle class.”

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Source: New York Times

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